Zoning Variance: 8 Things (2024) You Must Know

Imagine this scenario: You have discovered the ideal property for your dream project, except you have just learned that local zoning regulations are a barrier to your plans.

Fortunately, there might be a solution – obtaining a zoning variance.

This complex, often misunderstood concept can be the key to unlocking the full potential of your property.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll demystify zoning variances, explore their significance, and provide essential information to help you navigate the world of real estate development.

Here are the top things you must know about zoning variances.

1. What is a Zoning Variance?

A zoning variance is a special exception granted by a local government or zoning board that allows a property owner to use their land in a way that would otherwise be prohibited by the existing zoning regulations.

Zoning ordinances are designed to maintain a certain level of uniformity and order within a community, dictating how the land can be used, the types of structures that can be built, and other development standards such as building height, setbacks, and density.

However, these regulations may sometimes be too restrictive or not fully account for unique circumstances surrounding a specific property.

In such cases, a zoning variance can provide the necessary flexibility for property owners to utilize their land in a more suitable manner while still adhering to the overall goals and vision of the community’s zoning plan.

Zoning variances are not a one-size-fits-all solution and are typically granted on a case-by-case basis.

To qualify for a variance, the property owner must demonstrate that they are facing a unique hardship or practical difficulty in complying with the existing zoning regulations.

This hardship must be related to the physical characteristics of the property, such as its size, shape, topography, or location, and not solely based on the owner’s personal preferences or financial considerations.

It is important to note that a zoning variance does not change the underlying zoning of a property; instead, it provides a temporary or permanent exception to specific requirements, allowing the owner to proceed with their proposed development or land use.

One key factor that distinguishes a zoning variance from other types of zoning relief is that it is intended to address individual property constraints, rather than broad policy changes.

For example, if a community decides to update its zoning regulations to allow for taller buildings or increased density in a certain area, this will typically involve a zoning amendment or rezoning process, rather than the granting of individual variances.

On the other hand, if a property owner wishes to build an addition to their home that exceeds the maximum height limit by a few feet, they may be eligible for a height variance, provided they can demonstrate that the request is justified by unique site conditions and will not unduly impact neighboring properties or the public interest.

Understanding zoning variances is crucial for property owners, developers, and even neighbors, as they can significantly impact the value, aesthetics, and functionality of a property.

By familiarizing yourself with the concept of zoning variances and the criteria for obtaining one, you’ll be better prepared to make informed decisions about your real estate projects and ensure that you’re making the most of your property’s potential.

2. Examples

Zoning variances come in many forms and are often sought by property owners or developers who face unique challenges in adhering to the existing zoning regulations.

Here are three examples to help illustrate the types of situations where a zoning variance may be necessary:

bulletExample 1: Converting a Single-Family Home into a Duplex

Suppose a property owner wants to convert their single-family home into a duplex to accommodate their growing family or generate additional rental income.

However, the property is located in a zone that only permits single-family residences.

In this case, the owner may apply for a zoning variance to allow the conversion, provided they can demonstrate that the change will not negatively impact the neighborhood or conflict with the community’s long-term planning objectives.

bulletExample 2: Transforming a Residential Property into a Small Business

Consider a homeowner who wishes to turn their residential property into a small business, such as an antiques store or a boutique.

This change of use would typically require a zoning variance, as the property may be located in a zone where commercial activities are not permitted.

The property owner would need to demonstrate that the proposed business will not create undue traffic, noise, or other disruptions to the surrounding residential area, and that the change of use is consistent with the broader goals of the community.

bulletExample 3: Building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) on a Vacant Lot

Sometimes, a property owner may want to construct an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), such as a granny flat or a detached garage with living quarters, on a vacant lot within their property.

This type of construction may require a zoning variance if the local zoning regulations do not permit ADUs or if specific requirements, such as minimum lot size or setbacks, cannot be met.

The property owner would need to show that the proposed ADU would not adversely affect neighboring properties or the overall character of the neighborhood and that there are unique circumstances justifying the variance request.

3. Types of Zoning Variances

Zoning variances can be broadly classified into several categories based on the specific requirements they address and the nature of the relief sought.

Here are the two types of zoning variances:

bulletArea Variance

An area variance is the most common type of zoning variance and is typically requested when a property owner seeks relief from dimensional or physical requirements such as setbacks, lot coverage, building height, or the minimum distance between structures.

For example, if a property owner wants to construct a home addition, they may apply for an area variance to permit the construction.

bulletUse Variance

A use variance allows a property owner to use their land in a manner that is not permitted by the existing zoning regulations.

This type of variance is less common than an area variance and generally requires the property owner to demonstrate that the proposed use will not have a detrimental impact on the surrounding properties or the community as a whole.

Examples of use variances include converting a single-family home into a multi-family dwelling or transforming a residential property into a commercial space.

4. Why Are There Construction Regulations to Begin With?

Construction regulations serve several important purposes in urban planning and development, contributing to the overall safety, health, and well-being of a community.

These regulations help maintain a balance between the individual interests of property owners and the broader goals of a community.

Here are some key reasons why construction regulations are essential:

bulletSafety and Health

One of the primary reasons for construction regulations is to ensure the safety and health of a community’s residents.

These regulations set standards for building materials, structural integrity, fire safety, and accessibility; reduce the risk of accidents or injuries; and promote a safe living environment.

bulletOrderly Development

Construction regulations help maintain an organized and well-planned community by guiding land use, development density, and the arrangement of different types of buildings.

This helps create a cohesive urban fabric, with residential, commercial, and industrial areas appropriately separated, reducing conflicts and ensuring that each part of the community can function effectively.

bulletEnvironmental Protection

Construction regulations often include provisions aimed at protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development practices.

This can involve measures such as preserving open spaces, protecting natural resources, or promoting energy-efficient construction techniques.

These regulations help ensure that development does not come at the expense of the community’s natural assets and ecological balance.

bulletInfrastructure and Public Services

Construction regulations also ensure that new developments do not overburden existing infrastructure and public services such as roads, schools, and utilities.

These regulations help sustain a balance between growth and a community’s resources by regulating development density and mandating that developers contribute to necessary improvements.

Overall, construction regulations are crucial for fostering safe, healthy, and well-planned communities that balance the needs of property owners with the broader goals of urban planning and sustainable development.

While these regulations may sometimes pose challenges for individual property owners or developers, they ultimately serve the best interests of the community as a whole.

5. What Are The Steps?

Obtaining a zoning variance involves a series of steps that require property owners to engage with local authorities, gather relevant information, and make their case for the requested relief.

Below is a general outline of the process to guide you through obtaining a zoning variance.

You can also check out a real world example by going to the City of Novi’s website.

bulletDetermine the zoning designation of your property:

Start by identifying your property’s zoning designation and the specific regulations that apply.

You can typically find this information through online resources such as a municipality’s zoning map, land use application, or property records database.

bulletFile a request or written application for the variance:

Prepare a detailed application for the zoning variance, explaining the unique circumstances that justify your request and demonstrating how the proposed change will not negatively impact the surrounding properties or the community.

Be sure to include any necessary documentation, such as site plans, architectural drawings, or photographs that support your case.

Submit the application to the appropriate local authority, such as the Zoning Board or Board of Appeals, along with any required filing fees.

bulletPublic notification and hearing:

The Zoning Board will usually notify nearby property owners of the requested variance and may hold a public hearing to gather input from affected parties and discuss the merits of the request.

This hearing provides an opportunity for you, as the applicant, to present your case and address any concerns or objections raised by neighbors or other stakeholders.

bulletAppearance before a local governing body:

In some cases, you may be required to appear before a local governing body, such as a city council or planning commission, for a final decision on your variance request.

This step typically involves presenting your case once again and responding to any questions or concerns raised by the decision-makers.

bulletA decision by the Zoning Board of Appeals:

After considering all the relevant information and input, the Zoning Board of Appeals or other deciding authorities will issue a final decision on your variance request.

If granted, the decision will outline the specific terms and conditions of the variance, which you must adhere to as you proceed with your project.

Keep in mind that the exact process for obtaining a zoning variance may vary depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the request.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the local requirements and procedures and consider seeking the guidance of a professional, such as a land use attorney or planner, to help navigate the process successfully.

6. How Rare Are Zoning Variances?

While zoning variances may seem like the elusive unicorn of the real estate world, they’re not as rare as one might imagine.

Variances are granted more frequently than you might think, as local governments recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach to zoning regulations doesn’t always accommodate the unique circumstances that can arise with individual properties.

That said, zoning variances are by no means handed out like candy at a parade.

Local authorities carefully evaluate each application to ensure that the requested relief is justified and won’t undermine the overall objectives of the community’s zoning plan.

So, while obtaining a zoning variance isn’t impossible, it’s still a difficult process that requires a persuasive case, a touch of finesse, and even a dash of luck.

In the end, the chances of securing a variance largely depend on the merit of the proposal and the ability of the applicant to demonstrate that the request is both reasonable and beneficial for the community.

7. Can Neighbors Stop a Zoning Variance?

Those pesky neighbors can be a source of both joy and frustration for property owners.

While they can offer companionship and shared resources, they can also complicate matters when it comes to zoning variances.

When it comes to zoning variances, neighbors can wield a surprising amount of influence.

As part of the variance application process, local authorities often notify nearby property owners and hold public hearings to gather input and assess the potential impact of the proposed variance on the surrounding community.

This provides neighbors with an opportunity to voice their concerns, raise objections, or even support the applicant’s request.

While neighbors may not have the final say in the approval or denial of a zoning variance, their input can carry significant weight with the deciding authority.

If neighbors can present compelling arguments that the requested variance would negatively impact their property values, quality of life, or the character of the neighborhood, it could (and probably will) sway the decision-making process against granting the variance.

The good news is that merely disliking a proposed project or fearing change is typically not enough to derail a zoning variance request.

Neighbors must provide concrete reasons and evidence to support their objections, and the deciding authority will carefully consider the merit of their arguments alongside the applicant’s case.

In other words, even if you have an unhappy and nosy neighbor, they will not be able to completely derail your case.

Ultimately, the outcome hinges on striking a balance between the individual property owner’s needs and the broader interests of the community.

8. Some Tips for Getting a Zoning Variance

bulletResearch local zoning regulations and requirements thoroughly.

bulletConsult with a land use attorney or professional planner for guidance.

bulletPrepare a comprehensive and well-documented variance application.

bulletAddress potential concerns and objections in your application.

bulletCommunicate and collaborate with neighbors to garner support.

bulletAttend public hearings and present a strong case for your request.

bulletDemonstrate how the variance will benefit the community or address a unique hardship.

bulletBe prepared to negotiate and adapt your proposal to address concerns or meet specific conditions.

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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